The cult of overwork

Interesting article by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker.

Alexandra Michel, a former Goldman associate who is now on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, published a nine-year study of two big investment banks and found that people spent up to a hundred and twenty hours a week on the job. In the pre-cell-phone, pre-e-mail days, it was possible for people to find respite when they left the office. But, as David Solomon, the global co-head of investment banking at Goldman, told me, “Today, technology means that we’re all available 24/7. And, because everyone demands instant gratification and instant connectivity, there are no boundaries, no breaks.”

Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in the U.S. were much less likely to work long days than low-paid workers were. By 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that ninety-four per cent worked fifty hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of sixty-five hours a week. Overwork has become a credential of prosperity.

The perplexing thing about the cult of overwork is that, as we’ve known for a while, long hours diminish both productivity and quality. Among industrial workers, overtime raises the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps; likewise, for knowledge workers fatigue and sleep-deprivation make it hard to perform at a high cognitive level. As Solomon put it, past a certain point overworked people become “less efficient and less effective.”

So, as Bob Pozen, a former president of Fidelity Management and the author of “Extreme Productivity,” a book on slashing work hours, told me, “Time becomes an easy metric to measure how productive someone is, even though it doesn’t have any necessary connection to what they achieve.”

As the anthropologist Karen Ho writes in her book “Liquidated,” “On Wall Street, hard work is always overwork.”

Make the most of your time, it’s the most precious resource you have. I wonder what the actual percentage of effective work is in those 70+ hour work weeks? Don’t become a slave to overwork. The number of hours you work doesn’t equate to your productivity and value to your organization.


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